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Virginia lawmakers to prioritize police reform in special session

Law enforcement officials respond to reports of a shooting at Ballston Quarter mall in Arlington, Va., on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019.

(The Center Square) – In response to the death of George Floyd and protests against police brutality erupting throughout the country, policing reform will be one of the top priorities in Virginia’s upcoming special session.

Senate Democrats have released a six-point plan for addressing policing reform, which includes bringing equity into policing, giving courts and prosecutors a greater ability to give lesser sentences, ensuring equitable sentences and reducing racial profiling from police.

Some proposals in the plan for bringing equity to Virginia policing included ending no-knock raids, making it illegal for police to have sex with individuals in custody, firing officers who use force during interrogations, requiring de-escalation attempts before using force, requiring warnings before shots can be fired and creating a duty for fellow officers to intervene.

The proposed reforms also include defelonizing assault on a police officer and stripping supplemental funding for police departments if local police have disproportionate use of force incidents in their jurisdiction.

Chris Braunlich, the president of the free-market, Virginia-based Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, told The Center Square that Republicans and Democrats should be able to agree on certain issues, such as prohibiting sex between officers and individuals in custody, requiring de-escalation attempts and prohibiting no-knock warrants.

Braunlich expressed concern, however, that the agenda appears to be mandates without additional funding and it lacks additional training programs to ready the police to follow the new mandates. He also said lawmakers should find a way to ensure police officers are held accountable, which will be hard after the General Assembly lifted the statewide ban on public sector collective bargaining.

“The biggest challenge with the worst offenders in police misconduct is that they are usually repeat offenders,” Braunlich said. “Derek Chauvin (who knelt on George Floyd’s neck until he died in Minneapolis) had 18 prior complaints. … The General Assembly should limit the scope of that collective bargaining to compensation and benefits. Make discipline non-negotiable, and do it now, before the problem arises.”

House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, told The Center Square that Democratic lawmakers have not proposed any actual legislation to address these problems.

“Democrats had months to put together proposals for the special session called today,” Gilbert said. “Yet as of today, we have no legislation to consider from the majority. All we have is a vague set of ideas enumerated by the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. Even worse, the Governor’s call says nothing about the looming crisis in public education and the thousands of children who will be negatively impacted from not being able to return to the classroom. We have yet to see any evidence of leadership from the Governor or the majority party in the General Assembly.”

Gov. Ralph Northam is requiring schools enforce social distancing when reopening, which will mean that most schools will not have enough space to provide in-person learning for every student five days per week. Republicans have urged the governor to develop a plan that allows every student to have five days of in-person schooling.

During the special session, which Northam called for Friday and is scheduled for Aug. 18, the General Assembly also will reconsider some spending proposals that were removed from the budget because of the economic losses caused by the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lawmakers will consider whether they can afford to include tuition-free community college, early childhood education initiatives, affordable housing initiatives and broadband initiatives based on new economic projections.

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